Q&A: Ammiel Alcalay

Q&A: Ammiel Alcalay

1. Did you always want to be a poet?

I’m not even sure how to answer that since I think the terms of “being a poet” have changed pretty dramatically over the course of my lifetime. We tend to think of these titles or categories as some kind of timeless essence but “being a poet” has and can mean a lot of different things in different situations. There are times when it has meant being the propaganda mouthpiece of a ruling fiefdom or glorifying an imperial empire. ”Poets” have instigated genocidal wars and they’ve also been witness to those same situations. For me, I think it was “writing” rather than the category of poet particularly, and I came to understand that poetry—under certain very specific historical conditions—can be a unique and very useful form of knowledge, a take on the world that might be unavailable elsewhere, but that seems more and more rare. I was an avid reader and happened to grow up in an environment in and around Boston where I had access to all kinds of people who happened to be poets. My high school years were 1969 to 1973 and so I didn’t really go to school much. There were local deaths of people that seemed heroic to me: Jack Kerouac in 1969, Charles Olson and then Steve Jonas in early 1970. I understood that the way they lived—and died—was intimately connected to what they wrote and how the society we were living in considered them, or didn’t. I think my relation to poets had more to do with a specific form of attention that might have been more generally prevalent then but was expressed very directly in conversation, in being together. It’s recognizable to me immediately, when it still happens. I got to know John Wieners, for instance, as a teenager, and I’d walk around town with him, sometimes talking, sometimes not saying much. That was the case with many others, sometimes with a group of adults going through various very significant things but who never saw me as a bother or an intruder. In retrospect, that’s quite remarkable. My first writing “mentor” was the poet Vincent Ferrini, to whom the Maximus poems began as letters. Vincent was exuberant and generous: he operated a frame shop in Gloucester, a very small place that he also lived in, and which has now, happily, become the Gloucester Writers Center, a far cry from the usual “artist retreats.” I’ve written extensively about Vincent and his experience in radical politics in the 1930s and 40s. To have that kind of historical transmission and sense of attention, that to me, I think, is what “being a poet” can mean.

2. What has surprised you most about your dedication to this path?

I guess I would say that what I have found surprising in the past few years is how little actually writing or producing poetry has to do with “being a poet.” There is no “coin of the realm” in this country anymore. Of course, this is something Ezra Pound put at the center of his work: “Usura slayeth the child in the womb,” which puts it as strongly and as succinctly as possible. We’ve lived in a kind of banking hell joined at the hip with the British Empire since the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. With manufacturing and production now almost fully outsourced, we have also, in so many ways, internally outsourced our own culture, begun thinking of it and relating to it in terms that actually have little or no relationship to the historical conditions in which it was produced. There has been a tradition of poets in the 20th c. with a historical awareness of these conditions but I think the nature of systemic “incorporation,” in which the publicity and propaganda machines have usurped almost all available space, has made it that much harder for poets to operate on that critical plane. I’m not sure if this, in itself, is surprising, but I think what I said earlier is. In other words, a deeper understanding that doing the work of poetry might not necessarily mean writing it.

3. What has been inspiring you lately?

I’m inspired by a young poet in Gaza, Mosab Abu Toha, who opened an English language reading library called the Edward Said Public Library, under conditions that I would hope we are all aware of. He would very much like to come to the US and study but, of course, he can’t leave Gaza, nor has he ever been able to leave Gaza. I’m inspired by Dareen Tatour, a young Palestinian poet who has been under house arrest for several years for a poem she posted on the internet and for which she has just been sentenced to an Israeli prison. I’m inspired by Ahed Tamimi, a 17 year old Palestinian who was just released from prison, along with her mother Nariman, after serving eight months for slapping an Israeli soldier trespassing on her family’s land.

4. What is the best thing about being a poet right now? What is the most difficult?

On the difficult side, I guess I try to wear blinders because if I paid attention to certain things it would be damaging to both my mental and physical health. And I’m not talking about the circus that refers to itself as “Washington” but the careerist triumphalism that seems to permeate too much of the so-called “poetry world” these days. And I don’t mean to paint with such a broad brush because I also feel very rooted in parts of this world, and close to many people participating in it, including myself! There is a tremendous pressure towards conformity, a fear of being critical, of actually expressing difference of thought and opinion, and of engaging in real debate. Of course this characterizes US society as a whole but the trickle down into the poetry scene is, to say the least, disconcerting and very stultifying, sometimes suffocating.

On the better side, again, taking all my previous qualifiers about “being a poet” into account, I would say that, having reached a certain age, I realize that I’ve accrued quite varied experiences and the knowledge of those experiences and I’ve been able to become more focused and selective in how I choose to transmit or make use of them. I’ve been having some fun over the past several years with my co-conspirators at Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, one of the few collective efforts out there trying to shake things up a little. My sense is that a lot of people actually follow it, using the equivalent of a brown paper screen-saver so the neighbors don’t find out, as we’re probably considered very impolite, irascible, and politically incorrect. Satire is needed now more than ever and the poems that have been given me over the past several years, a sequence I’m calling Imperial Abhorrences (& Other Abominations), are mainly written while driving (I have a long commute), and are kind of bumper sticker like historical and political treatises, in homage to Ed Dorn.

5. Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Documents Initiative is such a wonderful title because the publications carry that energetic charge of discovering a treasure — if you could tell us how it came to be and why?

Thank you! Needless to say, I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to achieve, and the fact that we’ve lasted this long and really built a multi-pronged institution within an institution that has also gone out and resonated variously in ways I’m sure I’m not fully aware of. Most of the great mentors I’ve been lucky enough to have always grumbled about this or that great work that, of course, is “out-of-print.” Having that as a kind of baseline, I also came to feel very strongly that the real work of the poets of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that I am closest to has only begrudgingly begun to be recognized for what it is, and that is a concerted and deep intervention at the heart of how US cultural politics and the state organized itself in the Cold War. This might be more obvious in the case of some figures but less so in the case of others. I saw that students were accustomed to understanding geographical and formal distribution of poets through reading anthologies, thinking that poets divided into schools were like some kind of fish that wouldn’t dare traverse “enemy” waters, and I wanted to find ways of making the culture and politics of the period cohere more to its reality. Finally, my academic training is more as a Medievalist and in Middle East Studies so that when I began teaching graduate students who were primarily involved in contemporary US culture, I realized that they needed more tools to understand the nature of historical contexts and I thought encountering an archive could provide a much more unmediated experience, in which a student would have to confront materials not surrounded by jargon or accepted vocabularies, and be forced to consider the object in itself and in relation to other actual things and events.

In addition, written in right at the very beginning, was the idea of using this great still public university, CUNY, as a means of bringing this archival work—often so secretive and unknown—into public light. At the heart of this was the idea of the Living Archive, and of hosting older, non-academically affiliated figures who could come into the academy but also bring students out of the academy and into their communities. This is part of a broader approach to providing tools for the preservation of various legacies that are sometimes well-protected but sometimes just a moment’s throw from a dumpster. We tend to think of our institutions as stable but, inherently, they’re not. No one in Baghdad or Sarajevo expected some of the first hits to be against their archives, and it is essential that we understand how important the transmission of historical memory is. This is the heart of the project: putting students in situations in which they take it upon themselves to become the bearers of this transmission.

6. A passage from something you’ve read recently that has resonated:

I’m just now rereading David Ray Griffin’s masterpiece, The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11. I find myself drawn to the kinds of work that gets labeled as “conspiracy theory” but which I find to actually be the most solid and lucid philosophical and epistemological response to the unreality and cognitive dissonance created by propaganda. Such books actually propagate reality: in discussing Flight 77, the Boeing 757 that allegedly hit the Pentagon, Griffin writes:

“According to at least one version of the official story, authorities were able to identify victims of the crash by their fingerprints. To provide support for the official account, therefore, the fire would have to be hot enough to vaporize aluminum and steel and cool enough to leave human flesh intact.”

This does the work of poetry: I’ve written a short “Imperial Abhorrence” in reference to this called “NEW HORIZONS IN PHYSICS.” By exposing ourselves to the surround sound of propaganda that is everywhere with us, we are actually being forced to “take leave of our senses.”

7. What do you think of the term “decolonization” and how we all seem to be throwing it around casually these days?

Useful but very problematic. We’ve barely begun to scratch the surface on this one and need to deeply educate and immerse ourselves in histories and peoples that have undergone the twin processes of colonization and decolonization, the second part, of course, being a hell of a lot harder to find true examples of. I’ve been a long-time student of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, of Palestine, and of Algeria, three very key areas. On the ground, the work of decolonization, as Fanon so eloquently puts it, is, by definition, violent. But that violence is often misunderstood—it can be through armed revolt but it also must be through a Rimbaud like “deregulation of the senses.” The old order must be completely overturned, internally and externally. This is not a simple process, by any means and, being in the USA, the impulse is to simplify things to the point of incoherence or consumer convenience. Thus, on an academic level, for instance, we have the category of the post-colonial, which tends to skip over the difficult work of decolonization. While I mention this as an academic category, given that the academy is often pimping more arcane ideas that soon get repackaged to find popular outlets in the stunningly narrow bandwidth of mass media, this idea suffuses all kinds of discourse. So there are lots of theories bandied about but very few examples that demonstrate the actual work of decolonization. Just to give a recent and very particular example: a former student of mine, Kai Krienke, just translated an extraordinary work by the late Algerian poet and scholar Hamid Nacer-Khodja, which is an almost book length essay prefacing a translation, also done by Kai, of the correspondence between Algerian revolutionary poet Jean Sénac and Nobel Prize winning author Albert Camus, also Algerian, and of similar poor, working-class background. This is a text through which one can learn a hell of a lot more about the actual mechanics of decolonization than shelves of theory. Moreover, we are ourselves colonized to vastly differing degrees by economic structures, racial categories, ideologies, and all manner of propaganda. The splintering of all this into identity politics only is also the work of a kind of colonization and makes deeper resistance incoherent and ineffective. I could go on…

8. What is the key to a superb translation?

Not mystifying the process. My friend Elias Khoury always says: “if a masterpiece can’t lose twenty-five percent in translation, it probably isn’t a masterpiece.” I remain hooked, for example, on the old Constance Garnett translations of Dostoevsky, because those are the ones I read when I swallowed Dostoevsky whole. Now I know that there are supposedly “better” translations out there, but I remain indifferent to them because they feel unfamiliar. I would also say that knowing both the language one is translating from and the language one is translating into, though that might just seem like common sense, is essential! We’ve come to the point where people are doing all kinds of translations with little or no knowledge of the language translated from. There are, of course, some people with a certain genius for “language” who can perform miracles, but those are very “informed” miracles. We’ve also come to a point where the “translation” is set off like some sort of crown jewel, as if anything can actually be conveyed without deeper context. So many of the translation projects that get done in the US just re-inscribe a kind of generic totalitarianism, upholding the values of “the poem” or “the novel.” We need translations with deep context, with historical overviews, with interviews, with excerpts from letters, biographies, polemics, and literary, cultural, and political background. Too few of these get done though I think, hopefully, that is changing.

9. What has been your favorite reading or moment at the Poetry Project?

There are so many so I’ll have to mention a few. In the mid-1970s, my very dear and old friend Kate Tarlow Morgan and I managed a bookstore in the West Village, a few doors down from a laundromat that I also managed part-time. One day we arrived to open the bookshop and there was a man in a blue suit sitting on a chair outside the shop. It was Robert Duncan. He spent some hours in the shop and, of course, we talked at length. He advised that we try and buy a Gestetner so we could start a small press. We had been planning to go hear him read at the Project that evening, which we did, and it was thrilling. Kate who, among other things, is a dancer and choreographer, created a performance piece called “Blue Suit” that we performed in Gloucester in 2010 at the Charles Olson Centenary celebration, so that encounter had much further resonance, thirty-five years later.

The Project has always been a welcoming place to me, an alternative to the “church” I don’t go to. As the machinery ratcheted up towards “Shock and Awe,” the war in Iraq, Anne Waldman and I organized a number of day long events at the project called “Poetry Is News.” There were many great moments, in the spirit of teach-ins of the 60s. Our first speakers included a friend, Rebecca Murray, who had been involved with the International Solidarity Movement (of which Rachel Corrie had been a part), and she described riding with ambulances through the Occupied Territories in Palestine. She was followed by the great Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury who gave a rousing talk that was seized upon when I was later attacked by neo-cons for “bringing Arabs” to places like the Poetry Project! Then, picking the perfect dramatic moment, as usual, Tariq Ali showed up in the middle of the day, to a packed hall, and we just gave him the stage. Finally, a wonderful Naropa student whose name now escapes me brought a group of high school students from Bushwick to talk about the cognitive dissonance they were facing by Army recruiters, and their strategies to organize and resist it. That was a brilliant and great moment.

In 2005, along with Fred Dewey and Michael Kelleher, we organized an event called “OlsonNow.” I bring it up because I feel like it was a watershed moment and an opportunity not further “exploited.” The key to that event was to disturb the standard structures of stage and speakers or panels on subjects. We did UN-style three-quarter circular seating and put microphones all over the place so people could speak from where they were and encounter each other rather than face a stage and look at a speaker. There was no one really leading the discussion and it was run more like a town meeting, interrupted by performances. Some of the ensuing encounters were amazing, like a dialogue between Jack Hirschman and Susan Howe that I don’t think could have occurred in a more conventional setting.

Finally, on the down side, I will say that I was somewhat dismayed and almost shocked at the small audience that turned up for Amiri Baraka’s memorial, and how so many of the readers qualified their feelings or thoughts about Amiri before their readings. This, to me, was an indication of a certain kind of malaise that I feel has permeated the so-called “poetry world,” in which each person is almost conditioned to feel that they have to stand apart, declare a kind of position of superiority to some purported “bad politics” attributed to the person or subject at hand. I find this colossally smug, historically unconscious, often quite offensive, and usually just a real bore…

Photo: Kate Tarlow Morgan

Ammiel Alcalay

Poet, novelist, translator, critic, and scholar Ammiel Alcalay teaches at Queens College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. His books include After Jews and Arabs, Memories of Our Future, Islanders, and neither wit nor gold: from then. His translations include Sarajevo Blues and Nine Alexandrias by Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinović. A 10th anniversary edition of from the warring factions, and new essays, a little history, came out in 2013 from re:public / UpSet. He is the General Editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, a series of student and guest edited archival texts emerging from the New American Poetry, and was the recipient of a 2017 Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for this work.